HEART MOUNTAIN, Wyo. — They joined hands around a pair of pliers and cut the symbolic strand of barbed wire that restricted them 66 years ago.
For three years during World War II, more than 10,000 Japanese-Americans were interned here at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Many vowed they'd never return once they were freed in 1945 after the surrender of Japan.
But on Saturday, more than 250 former internees, accompanied by family members, friends and supporters, returned to this rural landscape to celebrate the grand opening of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center.
After decades of discussion, years of planning and millions of dollars in fundraising, the center welcomed its first guests Saturday after the cutting of the wire.
More than 1,200 people were on hand, moved by public reflection and entertained by ceremonies rich in Japanese custom.
In the 66 years since the camp's occupants were allowed to go home, Heart Mountain's message has become one of the lessons learned.
It's a symbolic reminder of what one speaker called "an imperfect response" to public hysteria and manufactured outrage.
"This is not about the past, but rather, this is about the future," said Norman Mineta, a former internee who went on to become a U.S. congressman and Cabinet member. "History always has the ability of repeating itself. But what you're doing here is drawing that line in the sand, saying that this will never happen again."
Mineta arrived at Heart Mountain as a boy in 1942 and lived with his family in confinement until 1945. Later, his ambition carried him to politics, and after 20 years in Congress, he went on to fill Cabinet posts under two presidents.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Mineta was serving as the Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush. The terrorist attacks forced Mineta to ground all civilian aircraft and enact tighter security before they were allowed to fly again.
"There were a lot of people saying not to let the Muslims back on the airplanes," Mineta said. "They were talking about internment and rounding them up. These were phrases and thoughts that were similar to something many of us had experienced when we were profiled (after Pearl Harbor)."
Heart Mountain was one of 10 relocation centers built across the U.S. in response to President Franklin Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order 9066, authorizing the mass removal of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast.
Three months earlier, in December 1941, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, was a boy fixing his tie in the mirror, preparing for church, when the local radio station broadcast the news: Pearl Harbor was under attack.
"I took my father and went out in the street and looked down toward Pearl Harbor," Inouye said. "You could see black puffs in the air. Three aircraft flew over, gray in color, with the Rising Sun on the wing. At that moment, I knew that my life had changed."
Inouye served as an officer with the U.S. Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Germany, eventually winning the Medal of Honor for valor in battle.
When he returned home, wearing his uniform, medals pinned on his chest, Inouye was refused service at a restaurant. The proprietor said they "didn't serve his kind" — never mind his Medal of Honor.
Like so many other former internees who attended the Heart Mountain ceremonies, Inouye didn't let his physical and emotional wounds alter his future. He became Hawaii's first congressman in 1959 and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962.
He helped to win passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a law that acknowledged the injustice of interning Americans of Japanese ancestry during the war and established reparations.
"It wasn't easy for America or any country to come out and say it did something wrong," Inouye said. "Very few nations are strong enough to admit wrong. America is strong enough, and we did so."
Former Sen. Al Simpson, R-Wyo., also was instrumental to passage of the 1988 act, co-sponsoring the legislation with Mineta.
Simpson met Mineta when they were boys. The two have remained friends for life.
Simpson admits that taking the high road wasn't easy in the climate surrounding World War II.
"It was a very puzzling time," Simpson said. "In the cafes of Cody, the signs said, 'No Japs allowed,' or, 'You killed my son at Iwo Jima.' This is confusing stuff for a 12-year-old."
When the war ended and U.S. soldiers began returning home, the racial finger-pointing didn't stop. Simpson remembered Wyoming as a place unsympathetic to Japanese, a place eager to see that they left town once they were released from Heart Mountain.
But over the years, several visionaries looked to commemorate the experience of those interned at Heart Mountain. While most veteran organizations in the area strongly opposed the idea, supporters pushed on, and Simpson emerged to help realize their efforts.
"They hung on, and they've succeeded," Simpson said of the volunteers, board members and donors behind the new Heart Mountain center. "They lit the fire."
These who converged on the camp that once held them prisoner remembered the dips in the land, where the high school stood, and the swimming hole that has long since gone dry. They purchased commemorative T-shirts and heavy red bricks taken from the old barrack chimneys.
And on Saturday morning, when Boy Scout Troop 883 raised the American flag to open the ceremonies, many stood with hands over hearts, reflecting on what it meant to be an American in the world's strongest democracy, even if that democracy is imperfect at times.
"The strength of this county is drawn from the dignity and determination of our fellow citizens who have been wronged, many of them terribly, but have not given up on the American dream, or the promise that their county will learn from its past mistakes," said Tom Brokaw, speaking at Friday night's pilgrimage dinner in Powell.
Brokaw, former "NBC Nightly News" anchor and author of "The Greatest Generation," noted that America is an immigrant nation — a country that remains a destination for people around the world who have a dream of pluralism, democracy, economic opportunity and rule of law.1 comment on this story
He also said great challenges require a common cause, and that taking the long and difficult road to a higher moral ground is more lasting than following the short and easy path of popular response.
Those who were interned at Heart Mountain and helped make the new center possible, Brokaw said, met those challenges and more.
"They did not give up on their country that had so mistreated them," Brokaw said. "In so many ways, this symbol of failure now becomes a symbol of triumph and a light to show us the way forward."